AUCKLAND, New Zealand — “Both teams are very talented teams and both teams will go to the World Cup with a good chance of winning it, I think.”
That was Steve Hansen’s analysis of a topsy-turvy seven days of rugby between Perth and Auckland that has answered some questions and created a few more on both sides of the Tasman.
It’s fair to say the wider Australian rugby community got a little bit carried away after last week’s 21-point treat at Optus Stadium.
Sure, the Wallabies had played well. But the true measure of this side was always going to be whether they could back it up.
They couldn’t, and a new record defeat at Eden Park was the end result.
And that is perhaps the difference between these two teams and where Hansen’s comments seem a little bit wide of the mark; not that the veteran All Blacks coach, who on Saturday brought up his 100th Test in charge, would ever go out on a limb and declare that the Wallabies can’t win it.
New Zealand’s worst play only pops up now and again and even when they are not at their best they have the ability to stay in the contest. It may not have resulted in a win against Ireland in Dublin last year, while fortune was certainly on the world champions’ side against England at Twickenham a week prior; yet on both occasions the game was still there to be won inside the final 10 minutes.
And then there’s the fact that the two trans-Tasman rivals will take an attacking mindset to the World Cup that is perhaps at odds with some of the other leading contenders.
Again, when Australia string it together like they did in Perth they may just be as good as any team on the planet. But they’re unlikely to get the same freedom to play in Japan, although World Rugby’s zero-tolerance approach to foul play shouldn’t totally remove the prospect of them playing against 14 men either.
Twenty-three turnovers in Auckland certainly didn’t help – nine more than they made in Perth — while one poor kick was all it took for Beauden Barrett and George Bridge to sting Australia out wide. If the Wallabies are to persist with an attack attitude that failed to score a point at Eden Park then there will be little room for error in both of those areas. The conditions will be far warmer in Japan, too, though sweat could make the ball just as a slippery as it was on Saturday night.
Still, the Wallabies’ margins for error are slim and there was no better example of that than when Richie Mo’unga scooped up a Reece Hodge knock-on and raced 50 metres for the game’s opening try. The All Blacks have made a habit of punishing Australia’s turnovers in each of the last four seasons.
“I think the handling one where we gave away the try, just our alignment was a little bit too flat there because we know they’re going to come and close it there,” Cheika said of Mo’unga’s effort.
Those are the margins of Test rugby. Had Beale’s pass been on the money or Hodge just a tad deeper, then it may have been the Wallabies winger on a run to the tryline.
Christian Leali’ifano’s missed penalties also stick out like a sore thumb, particularly given their reasonable proximity to the posts. They shouldn’t however kill Leali’ifano’s Cup hopes, but they won’t have guaranteed him a start against Fiji in Sapporo either.
And then there’s the curious case of David Pocock. The veteran Wallabies back-rower is now expected to return to the field in Australia’s final World Cup warm-up against Samoa in Sydney on September 7th.
Up until Saturday night you would have said that Lukhan Salakaia-Loto had probably done enough in a more traditional back-row composition to see Pocock used as one of the great replacement weapons in rugby history. But the Reds back-rower had an unhappy night in Auckland, leaving more than just a smidgeon of uncertainty around exactly what Cheika and fellow selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor will do with their loose forward trio.
Horses for courses, maybe? Could Pocock play against Fiji but then come off the bench against the physical Wales?
A similar question was put to Hansen by ESPN in terms of his own back-row to which the All Blacks coach responded: “You’ll have to wait, that’s one of those questions that comes back as you’ll have to wait…but if you’re asking how happy I am with it, then extremely.”
The All Blacks loose trio of skipper Kieran Read, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea turned the tables on their Wallabies counterparts on Saturday after they themselves had been on the back foot in Perth. A lot will have to do with Liam Squire’s availability, but after their collective effort in Auckland the trio of Read, Cane and Savea will surely be seen at some stage in Japan.
So too will the Richie Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett twin pivot system which at last showed its potential. Backs coach Ian Foster said the conditions had likely played a role in its success in Bledisloe II, so too the fact that the duo had enjoyed one further week of preparation.
With a month’s more training to come, the rugby world should expect it to be humming come kick-off in Japan.
Brodie Retallick could also be back which would virtually bring the All Blacks back to full strength – Squire’s situation pending – and as such should see the defending champions head into the tournament as favourites.
But they will also understand that two of the stars of Saturday night’s win, Sevu Reece and George Bridge, will enter the tournament largely untested under the high ball at Test level. Australia curiously didn’t really test either winger in Auckland but you can guarantee that South Africa will roost the ball high into the Yokohama sky on September 21, so too whoever the All Blacks meet through the knockout stage.
There is no doubt the Wallabies face a tricky opener against Fiji on the tournament’s second day themselves, but they should still negotiate that fixture and likely set themselves up for a Pool decider with Wales eight days later. Lose that match and a run deep into tournament becomes more difficult as Cheika rightfully alluded to in trying to surmise just exactly where his team is at.
“From the results, yeah, maybe, but there’s no real relevance,” he responded when asked whether there were similarities when the Wallabies were in the same position four years ago. “It’s about what we’re doing this year in particular. If you asked me how I’m feeling yesterday or before the game, I’m feeling really good about the improvements we’ve made. And as terribly disappointed as I am about the game, I’m not just going to throw those away am I?
“I’ve got to put them in context; keep trying to build on those things and don’t let this…don’t let this get you down. Yes, you’re going to be sad and disappointed, but suck it up and get ready for the next one and get moving forward for the next one and build into the World Cup just how we’ve always planned to.”
Both coaches certainly have plenty to consider, first as they lock in those last few spots in their 31-man squads and then when they actually touch down in Japan and treat every Test on its merits.
Treating Hansen’s assessment of both his team’s hopes and those of the Wallabies should be done with the same approach.
The All Blacks are favourites but are in no way head and shoulders above the chasing pack as they were four years ago, while the Wallabies remain a team whose best rugby can match it with anyone but whose ability to produce it consistently is, for now, not where it needs to be.